LEXINGTON, Ky. — Before he even started school, Jason Borders tended to collect objects such as animal bones that he found while exploring his neighborhood near Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate in Lexington, Ky.
"I always had a little cabinet of curiosities in my room, and in the garage," Borders recalls.
Years later, Borders still is collecting bones and curiosities, only now they are his canvas for intricate designs and hang in galleries where they sell for hundreds and thousands of dollars each.
Borders now lives in Portland, Ore., with his wife, fellow Henry Clay High School graduate Elizabeth Sumney Borders. But he was back in Lexington this month to open a show of his work at Mulberry & Lime, a downtown home furnishings and gift shop that also sells work by local artists.
Shop owner Mary Ginocchio said she decided to show Jason Borders' work after Lexington artist Bob Morgan suggested it. When she saw the work, she said, she was impressed by the unique form and intricate craftsmanship.
The pieces consist of animal bones, mostly skulls, into which Borders has engraved and inked complex designs of lines and dots that resemble traditional mehndi tattoos. The designs usually are not symmetrical, taking on forms that can look like old maps, paisley patterns and other designs.
Borders says he doesn't go into a piece with any intention; he lets the design guide him and is frequently surprised by the results. When done, he usually inks and puts a finish on the bone, often giving it a particular hue.
Borders says he remembers always making things with his hands and taking classes presented by the Lexington Art League at the Loudoun House. He would stroll Gallery Hops, taken by the work of Morgan and Jimmy Gordon, and he eventually worked with Lexington artist and gallery owner Gayle Cerlan.
After graduating from Henry Clay in 2005, Borders went to the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio. Shortly after graduation, he moved with Elizabeth to Oregon, where she earned a master's degree at Portland State University.
He worked in traditional mediums including paper and clay. But a few years ago, he was in the desert and came across the carcass of an elk.
"I loaded most of it in my Honda Civic," Borders says, laughing. "I almost got arrested doing this."
At home, after cleaning the bones, he noticed his Dremel, a rotary grinding tool that his in-laws had given him for Christmas.
"Looking at the Dremel and looking at the bones next to each other, I picked it up and started working on it," Borders says. "The garage was right underneath my house, and I ended up filling the house with bone dust, and made myself really sick and made my wife really angry.
"Then I did it another four years, but I'm much more careful these days."
At first, Borders says, the bones were something he dabbled with, trying to learn how to best work with them. He also continues to paint.
In addition to the bones, Mulberry & Lime has several of Borders' paintings for sale.
But the bone pieces have become a signature, he says, drawing a wide range of reactions from "little old housewives who think they're really disturbing" to "people closer to my age who are like, 'Oh, that is so hard-core, bro.'
"Those are the ones that actually irritate me the most, when people just see them as carved bones and aren't actually paying attention to the art."
There is a distinct Borders style at work in the bones, his paintings and his other work.
"I always work in the same way, have the same approach," he says. "With bones, they may be similar in shape, but there are all different kinds you could imagine, and beyond that, there's the density of the bone, how long it was left outside, the age of the animal when it died — they all affect the way I work and the way it looks at the end. It's a nice way to enact different results. Nothing's ever quite the same."
A question he frequently gets: How does he get the bones?
"I'm an opportunistic hunter," Borders says. "I will often go trade with local farmers, like do a couple hours work or trade them a small piece of art for a bunch of bones.
"I find them. I keep a bunch of trash bags in my car. I go out to the woods a lot. Nowadays though, I'm the bone guy. People bring me bones — a lot."
He says he tried to count all the skulls in his house and lost track at about 40.
His wife is cool with that.
"We've been together 12 years," Borders says. "She knows my m.o."